Joyce: Valerie, you certainly have been busy since I interviewed you for your first book Let’s Dance! Congratulations on your newest–Together We Ride from Chronicle Books–and your numerous contracts for upcoming picture books (now through 2023) with Chronicle, Abrams, and Scholastic. As in your story, your bike is rolling and you must be proud!
Valerie: Thank you so much for those congratulations, Joyce. Yes, I have been busy, and it’s been a lot of fun! I actually have a signed contract for 2024 as well, but it hasn’t been announced yet.
JAZ: Together We Ride is a simple celebration of a universal concept – learning to ride a bike. A little girl is excited, then a bit off balance and uh-oh, she falls. But her dad’s warm hug gives her the courage to try again. When she succeeds she feels delighted. How did you choose this theme?
VB: I was inspired by what I saw. Children riding bikes in my neighborhood. While taking daily walks with my husband during the COVID shutdown, I met a five-year-old girl who had just learned how to ride a bike. Learning to ride a bike – without training wheels – is such an exciting milestone for children … and that girl was so proud of herself. I decided to write a story about that experience.
When I wrote the story, I didn’t have gender roles assigned to the child or adult. However, my editor at Chronicle Books, Elizabeth Lazowski, had a clear vision to make this a father/daughter story.
JAZ: You write in Connecticut while Kaylani Juanita (Coretta Scott King Award Honoree), who illustrated your book, lives in California. Have you had any opportunity to interact with her due to the book?
VB: Kaylani’s art is beautiful and perfect for this book. She and I didn’t interact until a virtual meeting hosted by Chronicle’s marketing and publicity team after the book was completed. It’s actually pretty typical for the author and illustrator not to connect. There’s collaboration, but it’s done via the editor and art director.
JAZ: You are a master of conveying a story in the fewest possible words–actually thirty-one in this story! When you submitted the manuscript did you include page breaks and art notes to help your agent and editor visualize the story? What about dad? Mom and little brother?
– Your word choices are lyrical and follow the story arc.
VB: Thank you for describing me as a “master,” Joyce. WOW! I’m flattered to receive accolades for something I enjoy so much and that I hope brings joy to others.
When I submitted Together We Ride, I hadn’t paginated it and included very few art notes. I only noted that some words described the child while others were for the adult. At the end of the manuscript, I did specify that another adult and child would join the first two and that the entire family would ride off together.
JAZ: What does your writing day look like? Do you prefer mornings? Do you have any special rituals that help you kickstart your work flow?
VB: I work full-time as an educator (instructional coach), so I write mostly on the weekends. Sometimes I can steal time during weekday evenings but usually not because of weekly writing commitments: a social gathering on Zoom with SCBWI members in my region, a critique group meeting, and teaching PB classes at Westport Writers Workshop.
I don’t have any special rituals when I write – just butt in chair and type. Sometimes I let my writing partner know my plan and check in with her when I’m done as an accountability measure.
JAZ: Please tell us how you found your agent. That in itself is quite a challenge.
VB: Yes, finding an agent is a challenge, Joyce. For me, it took 150 queries, and it happened after my debut, LET’S DANCE!, had been published. Also, I’m not sure whether I found my agent or if he found me. You can read all about it here.
JAZ: You seem to be very good at promotion, which is a valuable talent for a writer. What has worked for you that you could share with others?
VB: I appreciate that compliment, Joyce. I believe that if I want people to know about my books, I can’t just rely on my publisher. Publishers are busy promoting many books at once, and I’m promoting one book at a time. It’s important for me to do my part.
Honestly, I’m not sure that everything I’ve done has resulted in increased book sales – I have no way of gauging that – but I can say that people know about me and my books and have been extremely supportive.
In terms of what I’ve done, here are a few things:
1. I’m a member of three co-marketing groups: KidLit in Color, Soaring 20s PBs, and PB Crew22. They’ve been amazing at helping me market my books!
2. I contact bloggers to see if they’ll review and/or interview me for my newest book release.
3. I’ve tried to engage more on social media, especially Twitter.
4. During the Covid shutdown, I reached out to bookstores and libraries to see if they were doing virtual storytimes and would be willing to host me.
3. I give back to the kidlit community by hosting dance parties (with Kailei Pew and Kaitlyn Sanchez), offering prizes for author-friends’ writing contests, and doing giveaways on Twitter.
JAZ: As a former teacher do you write for the age group you taught? Or is it perhaps the picture book format itself that keeps you writing for this community of children? Will you stick with books for the very young, or do you have mss. For older kids too?
VB: Though I’ve taught both elementary and middle school students, I prefer writing for younger children. Maybe it’s because my longest period of time as a classroom teacher was in the elementary setting (12 years). Maybe it’s because of my young nieces (who were two and four when I started writing children’s books). Or maybe it’s because I’m a child at heart, and that fuels my writing spark.
Currently, I’ve written picture books, an early reader series, and, just this year, an early chapter book that I hope will be the first in a series. I may want to explore writing a middle grade book in the future, but I don’t see writing beyond that genre … unless it’s a professional book related to education and/or writing.
JAZ: Who has inspired you?
VB: So many people inspire me, Joyce. My nieces. Other authors. Tara Lazar with her Storystorm.
The people who inspire me the most are those with whom I’m in contact most consistently: my critique partners (especially my writing partner, Lindsey Aduskevich), my agent, James McGowan, and my mentor, Kelly Starling Lyons.
Where to find more about Valerie and Kaylani: